Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Frozen Music, The Choral Novel, Chapter Three: Solemn Vespers


Tutti vivace

Good omens followed me on my drive to Westfield College. I pulled into the parking lot carrying exorbitant hopes of finding a space, cruising the front row nearest the campus. A gray-haired lady in a ’65 Mustang took the opportunity to pull out of her spot directly in front of me. I pulled in immediately, lest someone take this heavenly gift away from me.

The walk to the Westfield music hall is framed by white stucco classrooms capped in the red clay tiles of Nueva España. It rises to a Great Plains of a courtyard, an acre of concrete centered by a fountain of mermaids and nymphs all gracefully spitting out water. When I arrived, the sun was a notch from the horizon; the shadow from the music hall cut the fountain in two.

The hall stands three stories high, a 1950s modernist box laced with medieval gargoyles (anachronism is alive and well and living in academia). The façade is noble: three wide steps with brick fringes flaring up to four arched doors of glass and steel. Inside is a recital hall with porthole-windowed entry doors, a lobby bulletin board sporting concert fliers and class announcements and pictures of faculty twenty years back when they still had hair. Around the corner, a hall lined with practice rooms casts out the smell of piano dust, old scores and aging linoleum. Swing past the jazz workshop – bebop session in progress – through the high-ceiling echo of the elevator lobby, pull a right just before the back exit, and there she is – the choir room.

I was twenty minutes early, but half the choir was already there. We were all pretty hyped about the upcoming concert. The choir was a full hundred members, but the choir room could have handled fifty more, easy. The high walls were covered with acoustic tiles, five-foot saltines all the way up to the ceiling. The seats semicircled down to the pit, which held a podium, two grand pianos and a chalkboard striped in musical staffs. The left-hand corner read “Handel’s wife ran off with a tenor,” which wasn’t all that funny, but it had been there five years and no one wanted to erase it.

I drifted down to my place in the second row and set my music on the chair next to me. The sopranos to my right were chatting up tornadoes; they enjoyed coming in early so they could talk about all the people who weren’t there yet. Their leader was Jenny, whose wardrobe tended toward the military. Last Tuesday it was an olive-drab jumpsuit with red beret, last Thursday a white sailor’s suit with navy blue trim. Tonight she wore a business suit, deep blue with black pinstripes. Secret Service.

But then, for fashion no one matched Barbie, hiding in the far corner with her frumpy drape, run-scarred stockings and scuffed pumps. She wore her mascara in large moons around her eyes, circles of rouge like a Raggedy Ann doll, and caked-on cherry red lipstick. She was a halfway or something, but she must have known how to sing or she wouldn’t have been here. We didn’t even know if Barbie was her real name.

Frederick and Frank had their two-man show going in the bass section for an audience of one – Chester, baritone, destroyer of stereotypes. Chester was the only black guy in the choir, but he couldn’t sing Negro spirituals worth a damn. No rhythm. Frederick and Frank were holding silver dollars over their eyes and making like German counts.

“Who eez zees Brahms fellow, anyvay?”

“Ein meister composer, Herr Friedrich. Zee toazt uff Berlin, I khear.”

“But zuch und melankkholy basssturd, Herr Frawnk. Death und doom, doom und death. Who vantz to lizzen to zuch scheizt?”

“But, Herr Friedrich, I like death und doom. Und unrecvited luff eez aboot mein fffavoritt sing.”

Frederick peeked over his silver dollar and studied his Aryan companion. “You arrr ein deprezzink perrrrzzon, Herrrrr Frawnk!”

Frederick Guttman was a large man with a larger soul. He severed the knuckles of his right hand in a high school shop accident; the missing digits just seemed to make his handshake more open. He laughed when he told the story. “Yeah, when I saw all these free-floating fingertips on the deck of that band saw, I had a distinct feeling something was amiss.”

Frank DeBucci was stout – a five-foot-five square. Frank’s only handicap was a constantly churning mind and no discernible filter between mind and mouth. I was surprised he could hold it in long enough to sing, although when he did, it was the finest tenor in choir, a soaring, angelic thing. Between them, the two F’s made a compelling display.

I was scanning my rehearsal notes when Alex came up and nudged me on the knee.

“‘Scuse me, sir.”

“Certainly.” I pulled in my legs and let him pass. “How are you, sir?”

“Fine, thank you.” He took my music from his chair and handed it to me.

“How’s the wife and kids?” I asked.

“Wife’s fine. No kids yet.”

“Still practicing?”

“Have to get it… just… right,” he said.


It’s Alex Blanche – as in carte blanche. He was thirty-two, last time I asked, married a couple years. Wife Betty worked evenings at a restaurant. Made it hard for them to see each other, but he did better in his night classes that way. During the day he was in air conditioning. Alex was a real break from the ego battleground. We’d been next-chair neighbors two years, and we carried on conversations in a different time continuum, minutes between phrases.

“So. How are you?” he said. “Sir.”

I picked up the Bernstein and flipped to the first movement. “I think I’m doing pretty well. Work’s rough. Sinuses cleared up, though.”


“Yes,” I said. “Now that I can hear, maybe I’ll stay on pitch.”

“Good… good.”

He picked up the Bernstein, too, and held it between his knees as he pulled off his work jacket, a blue number with a name patch – “Al” – over the pocket in script lettering. He opened the score and tapped beats against the page, then stopped and clicked his tongue.

“Are you having as much fun with these weird meters as I am?”

“God yes,” I said. “I’ve been snoring in seven-four.”

He ran over the measures and counted out loud: “One two three four five six seven one two three four five six seven one two – Oh God, eighth notes.”

“Think of it in duple.”


“Yeah. Like this: Onetwo onetwo onetwo oneonetwo onetwo onetwo oneonetwo onetwo onetwo.”

He thought it through. “Okay. That’s better.”

“Then, once you get that you can just tie the duple notes together: one two three and one two three and one two three…”

“…and one two three and one two three. Mister Moss, you’re brilliant.”

“Thank you.”

Alex took out a pencil and started scratching out his measure numbers. “Sure you’ve got the meter,” he muttered. “Now just sing in Hebrew and on pitch. Oy vey nakashima.”

I was about to make a comment when the room began to hum. The doors bolted open to reveal the choir president and the assistant conductor and between them Mr. Stutz, straps of bullets across his chest, a huge mascara mustache and a three-foot-tall sombrero. He drew two cap guns and fired them at the ceiling.

“Eeeee-haaaah! Basses?! We don’t need no stinking basses!”

He stormed down the steps. “Amigos! Arribe! Tutti vivace!”

That was our cue. We dropped our music and stood as one. “It occurred to me last noche, señors y señoritas, that to catch on to theese siete/cuatro time theeng, nosotros must theenk como flamenco dancers.” No one got it. He stomped the floor with his boots. “You know – flamenco dancers!”

The choir gave out a flurry of hoots and footstomps.

“Si!” he shouted. “Que bueno! Ahora, let’s try eet all together, come Señor Bernstein. Todos! One two three and one two three and one two three and one two three y-uno dos tres y-uno dos tres…”

He clapped each beat and stomped the and. The choir joined in, and the room shook in seven-four. The secretary in the marching band office must have been under her desk.

Mr. Stutz stopped and flung his sombrero like a Frisbee. Everyone stopped except Frank DeBucci, off by the sousaphone lockers, oblivious. Frederick Guttman wrapped his arms around Frank’s middle and picked him up, but he kept going, limbs moving like a wind-up toy. Frederick carried his partner to his seat and pressed an invisible button on his back. Frank froze in his place, wearing a stunned expression.

“Good!” said Mr. Stutz. “Okay, now that we’re gringos again, let’s do some warmups, then we’ll sharpen our Hebrew diction. Everybody take a de-e-e-p breath, and let it out on an ess. Hold the diaphragm tight; see how long you can last.”

His arms went up, then down, holding the hiss in his fingers: Hu-hhh, SSSssssss-s-s-s-s…

“Hah! The Kwy-ah Boys!”

The men of choir made like infantry across the courtyard, and Sam the Cat greeted us from his coffee cart. He stood at the library entrance with three of his colleagues: a slim Persian, a scraggly calico, and a fat mottle of rainy-day gray and yellow we called Largo (musical notation for “slow and broad”). Sam called him Minestrone.

“Sam! How’s the tabby trade? The kitten cartel? The feline franchise?”

Frederick Guttman and his long legs arrived first, and he slapped Sam on the shoulder. Sam flicked a thumb under his mustache and scratched his whiskers. You almost expected him to lick his paws.

“More’n ah kin handle, Freddie. You in for ya regulah?”

“Coffee, black. Cookie, chocolate chip. Gum, spearmint.”

“That’s ya regulah.” Sam grinned and filled a cup from his pot. “One hell of ah suppah, y’ask me. Yo momma know ‘bout this?”

“Mother dear is in Michigan, Samuel.”

“Ooooh yeeaahh, I knew that. She call me ‘bout yo’ eatin’ habits, tol me tah keep a eye on you. Says you eats like a hog. I said yeah, thass what keeps me in business, Miz Guttman. Don’t know what ah’d do without Freddie, he’s a one-man industry.”

Frederick laughed, handed Sam five dollars and waved him off when he offered the change.

“Ooooh yeeaahh, ah forgot that, too. Young Freddie don’ take no change. Makes too much noise jinglin’ in his pocket, scares off the ladies ‘fore he can catch um.”

“Thanks, Sammie. Pet Largo for me.”

“Ah tol’ you boys thass Minestrone!”

As for me, I bought a cup of coffee, no goodies. I told Sam the Cat thanks but he was already on the next Kwy-ah Boy. Funny how none of the women come out here, I thought. Could be they’re tired of us.

By now the action was at a bench off the library lawn, where everyone had gathered for act two of the Frank and Frederick show.

“Tell me, Frank. Do you believe in casual sex?”

“No, Freddie, I like to dress up for it. But speaking of sex, you know it truly distresses me that the average American woman will never know the joy of pissing at dartboard urinal targets.”

“Oh, Frankie, Frankie. How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”

Frank ignored him and shot off another round. “Did you know the word ‘commode’ originally referred to an ornate cap worn by women in the eighteenth century?”

“Don’t be a shithead, Frank.”

Frank steadied an invisible bazooka on his shoulder and fired: “Kazowie! Blam! Pow! Aaaaauuuueeeeooooaagh!”

“Ah, sound effects,” Frederick quipped. “The call to arms of male bonding.”

Two minutes of F & F is enough for anybody. I escaped during a half-second pause and walked back to the bricks by the courtyard fountain. Sitting there, I shook my coffee and waves of light sparked off the surface. It settled to a perfect circle, my own Java Moon.

“Hello. Mr. Moss, sir.” Alex. “How’s the coffee?”

“Fine. Monsieur Blanche, sir. Warm. Brown. Carcinogenic.”

“Such is life.”

“Yes,” I said. “Where were you?”

“Calling the wife.” Alex sat with me on the bricks. “I sort of miss her.”

“I can imagine.”

“Oh, and no kids yet.”

I sort of chuckled. “That’s good. Fewer distractions.”

“I wouldn’t mind. Someday. Hey, you mind if I get a sip of that? That high A tonight is a real strainer.”

“Sure. Here.” I handed him my cup. “In fact, have the rest. I don’t want a whole cup, anyway.”

“Thank you, sir.” Alex took a swallow and arched his neck to let it smooth down his throat.

We sat there and didn’t say much. I could tell he was thinking about her: to have that degree without staying away from her so much.

“Do you know loneliness?”


“Do you know loneliness?” he said. “Is loneliness an acquaintance of yours? Have you been to his house? Have you met his family?”

I reached back and dipped a hand into the fountain, the cool water running over my fingers. It took me a while to come up with an answer.

“I used to know it,” I said. “I don’t know it anymore because I call it by another name.”

“An alias.”

“Sort of. Solitude. Aloneness.”


The wind blew every evening through the valley, and it died down an hour after dark. It stopped then, as Alex sat chewing on my ambiguities. A bat flew over the music hall and let out a G-flat. It felt like loneliness.

“I can’t call it anything else.” Alex took a last swallow and set his cup on the bricks. “There’s a woman I’m supposed to be with tonight, and I can’t, because that was my choice. That was her choice. Even if I was with her I’d be lonely because we’ve put so much into our choices that we can’t be together without them. Can you understand that?”

“Yes,” I said. “I knew that loneliness.”

“Good.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “That’s what I wanted to know.”

I smiled. Alex looked at his watch.

“And now, Mister Moss, we sing the Vesperae solennes de confessore.

“The Solemn Vespers. Perfect.”

We stood and stretched. The Kwy-ah Boys trooped near across the courtyard.

“You seem to lose attention,” said Alex. “During the Mozart.”

“Attention? What do you mean?”

He jammed his hands into his pockets.

“When you’re doing the Bernstein or the Dvorak you’re all energy. You sit on the edge of your seat. You tap out rhythms while the other sections are running through things. During the Mozart… I don’t know, you’re just not all there.”

I was lost in the Strawberry Moon.

“I thought maybe because Amy…”

Stacy used to tease me about that. Every full moon I’d say it, I had an almanac and I kept track of them. The Rose. The Green Corn. The Crow. The Strawberry.

“Hey, Mossy!”

Frank DeBucci, leaning out the door.

“Stop playin’ werewolf and get in here!”

I gave the Strawberry Moon a last glance and turned to go. I guess Alex had gone in already.

Thinking of the Mozart, I think of lips so smooth and strong they must be chiseled from pink marble.

Photo by MJV

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